A Battle in Baghlan
What going to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan's troubled north is really like.
POL-E-KHOMRI, Afghanistan—”You sons of Jews. You servants of infidels. You brought others here to occupy Afghanistan. You brought people to kill innocent Afghans. You are responsible. You motherfuckers. You sons of whores.”
Half a dozen police officers were clustered around a radio in the headquarters at Pol-e-Khomri, capital of Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban insults came through loud and clear. The insurgents were only a few miles away. And they had good radios, Motorolas they had stolen from the police.
The radios had been taken last year in an incident the police didn’t like to talk about but which was, nevertheless, revealing. Several policemen were captured by the Taliban. The insurgents seized their weapons and equipment. The policemen were beaten, and certainly humiliated, but they were not killed. That was only sensible on the part of the Taliban: War in Afghanistan has always been marked by changing alliances. Today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s friend. “This is not Iraq, where thousands of bodies were turning up in Baghdad with holes drilled in their kneecaps,” one NATO officer with experience of both places told me.
The killing here may be restrained by pragmatism, but the exchange over the radio was bitter enough. “Murderers,” the police officers shot back. “You servants of the Pakistanis. You brought Punjabis, ISI officers [Pakistani spies], Arabs, and Chechens here. You robbed millions of girls of an education. You destroyed this country to please your foreign masters.”
The Taliban retorted: “You will pay. If you are men, why don’t you fight us? Why do you hide like women? Why do you hide like foxes? Come out, sons of Jews.”
The Taliban were about to get their wish. The police in Pol-e-Khomri were preparing an attack. An offensive was already under way across three other northern provinces. In Baghlan, the main thrust would be against one district, Borka, which was firmly in Taliban hands.
The man in charge of the offensive was a soft-spoken and charismatic general named Mohammed Daoud Daoud. He had once been secretary to martyred Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, whose picture is still displayed everywhere in this part of the country. Daoud now commanded all Interior Ministry forces in the north, including his own elite force of police commandos, Pamir 303. The government in Kabul was shortly to announce which parts of the country would begin transitioning to Afghan security control, and Daoud had invited my BBC crew — me, my local producer, cameraman, and a security guy — he said, so that we could see how Afghan forces were already conducting their own operations with very little help from NATO. He wanted to show us that Afghans were ready to lead the fight against the Taliban.
Daoud had taken over the Baghlan police chief’s large office, sitting in a comfortable armchair and greeting a constant stream of visitors. People came and went: police colonels, Afghan Army generals, members of independent militias called arbakis; state security men, provincial council members, former Taliban, even, on rare occasions, but most importantly, active members of the insurgency. Over steaming glasses of green tea and bowls of sugared almonds, Daoud conducted his own kind of diplomacy. His aim was to use the threat of an offensive to get as many Taliban as possible to change sides. After a whispered conversation with Daoud, a provincial councilman stepped out to call a Taliban contact, probably a relative. “The operation is starting in two days,” he told him. “Now is the time to negotiate.”
Two turbaned and bearded local Taliban commanders arrived in the hour before evening prayer. They spoke for no more than 20 fighters each, but that was typical. In Borka, Daoud was facing a few dozen small groups like theirs. They met in a side room where they could speak privately. The Taliban commanders explained that they had joined the insurgency because of the district governor who was “corrupt.” A brother had gone to him for help in a land dispute — a common problem in a country where only 10 percent of land is properly registered. But he was arrested and beaten. The family turned instead to the Taliban for help, and the whole village went over to the insurgency.
“We want to get rid of the climate of enmity,” Daoud told them. “I can go to the president, to the minister of interior and to the big American general. I will say that these people and their tribe came to me. They are not ideological. They suffered an injustice. The injustice committed by the government official made them join the Taliban. But today, they have come to the government.” Daoud asked them where he could expect fighting. The two Taliban commanders listed a number of villages and within them the exact positions of men they had been fighting alongside.
“Will Haji Sediq fight?” asked Daoud, naming another insurgent leader.
“Will Qari Naeem fight?”
“Yes, he is the Taliban district governor! He is the district governor!”
“Will he fight in his village?”
“In your view, should our units go from the back or from here?” asks Daoud, naming more villages.
“Go slowly, slowly from that direction. It will be great. In tactics, I am skilled.”
“We should kill them [the Taliban] in M——-,” said Daoud, naming another village (the name of which we are withholding for safety reasons).
“No, we are in M——-! It is us there.”
“It’s good that you told us. Our plan was to attack your village first.”
Finally, Daoud asked: “Can we be certain about you?”
One of the Taliban replied: “When this is over, we will raise the government flag.”
It seemed an almost casual act of betrayal. But they were not true believers. The insurgency no longer suited their interests. Daoud was hoping that others would make the same calculation. Before they left, though, the two men had a favor to ask: “Mr. Commander, if you allow us, we want to launch our own operations first.” Daoud was puzzled. Against the other Taliban? They laughed. “No.” They wanted permission to kill the district governor as the fighting got under way. Daoud paused and then denied their request. “Tomorrow, when everything is ready [for the offensive], I will send units to protect you, your property, and your honor! Stay in your houses.”
He had one last thing: “Don’t worry. I will send our police, not the local police, not the arbakis.” That last part was important. According to one estimate, 80 percent of the Taliban fight within walking distance of their homes. This is a local insurgency, often with local causes: a corrupt district governor, predatory police, or abuses by the local militias, the arbakis. Many people would rather live under Taliban rule than have to deal with the local police and the militias, one human rights campaigner in Kabul explained to me.
A story told to me by a Baghlan journalist about an arbaki in Pol-e-Khomri illustrates why: The commander “taxed” shopkeepers, set up illegal checkpoints on the road, and organized kidnappings for ransom. His men were known for raping women from the less important tribes. They had police vehicles and heavy machine guns because the arbakis are, loosely, part of the police. The police chief seemed powerless to stop him.
Everywhere he went, Daoud stressed the need to respect the local population. He was saying all the right things from the international community’s point of view. It made me wonder whether he had political ambitions. But this was also the right way to fight an insurgency. It made military sense. In one meeting of his commanders, he said: “If the arbakis do anything wrong, disarm them, handcuff them, and bring them to me. No exceptions.” He went on: “Some of these guys are mad; some of them are on drugs. They are an embarrassment. But this time, they are part of the operation.” So why let them join the assault at all? He explained that they knew the terrain and the people. He needed them “only as guides.” A few days before the offensive was due to start, he called about 20 arbaki commanders into his office. They sat on rows of folding chairs as he delivered a speech about the need to respect human rights. As they stood up to leave, he added, “If any of your men rape the local women, I will hang them.”
It was 8 a.m. on a Friday, but Daoud’s office was already packed. Preparations for the assault were reaching a peak. That meant a final push was also being made to get the Taliban to switch sides. People in Daoud’s office told us happily that one Taliban commander with 40 armed men was ready to declare allegiance to the government. This group, it turned out, had once been a local militia, an arbaki, one run by the internal intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The commander had robbed a bank, however, so the NDS tried to have him arrested. For protection, he joined the Taliban. Now he wanted to return (and expected the slate to be wiped clean).
Last year, there had been a ceremony to welcome 150 Taliban who had chosen to be “reintegrated,” according to the Baghlan journalist I spoke to about the militias. But the “Taliban” were all former arbakis who had switched sides and were switching again, he said. In his eyes, they were criminals who would fight for whoever paid them.
The following day, Daoud proclaimed it a good morning to begin the assault. The sun was burning the mist off the fields. The skies were clear enough for U.S. helicopters to fly, providing air cover for Daoud’s attacking force. In his office once again, Daoud’s mobile phone rang constantly. One call was to warn about “two Punjabi suicide attackers” in the area. He got another warning about a suicide car bomber driving around the district, looking for enough policemen or soldiers in one place to carry out the detonation. Security for all the bases was stepped up. The Taliban commander with 40 men, the former arbaki, rang to say he was hesitating about changing sides again. One of the two Taliban men who had met Daoud called and said he had decided to stay with the insurgency, for the time being anyway. Everyone was waiting to see which way the battle would go in the early stages before making their choice.
A column of armored Humvees and Toyota pickups traveled in a fast-moving column to the police station closest to Borka. Daoud stayed behind, handing over command to the provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi. We joined him for a breakfast of lamb kebab and hot bread while he handed out a thick stack of bank notes for the operation (this was mainly cash to buy mobile-phone cards for his officers so they could communicate during the assault). Around 1,100 policemen, soldiers, and arbakis would take part. The intelligence suggested there were around 250 to 300 hard-core Taliban in Borka. There were another 700 or so armed villagers who supported the Taliban, the police said, but they were expected to defect once it was clear the government side was winning.
Hundreds of armed men formed up in ranks outside. “Even if you catch a Talib, you do not have the right to beat him, slap him, or injure him,” said Rahimi, wagging his finger. “You have to be very nice to them and bring them to the base. Make the locals understand that the ANP, ANA, and NDS [the police, army, and state security] are kind and good people so that they accept us.” He went on: “You cannot hurt anyone’s life, dignity, or wealth in any circumstances. If you take an Afghan’s pride away, he will kill himself to get revenge. My only request is that you act humanely and kindly. I pray for your success.”
We drove out to the first village. Already, we could hear constant heavy-machine-gun fire from a few miles away where the operation had already begun. Rahimi took charge, giving orders for everything down to the smallest detail. He had a mobile phone in each hand, speaking first into one and then the other. Aides handed him a radio from time to time. Subordinate commanders came and went. (To passing army Humvees, he said: Don’t drive on the road there; it may be mined. To a sergeant: Take some men to the other hilltop.)
While the police were getting into position around the village, the Taliban opened fire. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded against the hillside in a cloud of dirt. A bullet buzzed close by like an angry bee. The insurgents were disciplined, firing one or two carefully aimed shots at a time. The first cracks sent the police running in all directions. One officer fell flat on his face, the wind knocked out of him. The general walked over to a wall for cover but didn’t duck down. An aide also refused to crouch. “You will get hit,” I said. “If necessary,” he replied. “It is not honorable to hide like a woman.”
There were more than 100 policemen and perhaps 12 to 15 Taliban. Most of the police were on a hilltop, pouring automatic fire into the mud-walled compounds below. Incredibly, there were no civilian casualties. A young girl hurriedly threw a scarf over her face and ran away as heavy cannon thudded overhead. The arbakis were right at the front, leading the assault, it seemed, not acting as “guides.” Five or six of them ran across the open ground toward the village. They were heading straight into the gunfire, with nowhere to hide.
The fighting moved closer to the village. From another hilltop came the sound of shouting. One of the local policemen was trying to get the others to stop firing. He waved his arms furiously and pointed down into the village. The Taliban commander was pinned down at the corner of a building. It turned out that the police officer was related to the insurgent. They were cousins and he was trying to save his life. The firing from the police positions intensified — an arc of fire from all around us — and he was killed. A few minutes later a cacophony of wailing rose up from the houses below. The women and children were learning what had happened. They stumbled out, weeping. One thin, repetitive cry stood out: “Oh God, why did you take my son? Oh God, why did you take my son?”
Male relatives picked up the Taliban commander’s body. He was a young man, only slightly bearded. His white shirt was bloody, and a red stain darkened the ground and splattered the wall behind him. His men had by now made their escape — distant figures disappearing over the brow of a far hill — or they had hidden their weapons and were still in the village. Rahimi was given the dead man’s Kalashnikov and ammunition pouches, all empty. “He fought to the last bullet,” said the general.
The police officer who was his cousin had run down the hill so fast his shoes had come off. He was too grief-stricken to care. He continued to argue with others from the attacking force. Our interpreter explained that families often had someone in the police and someone in the Taliban. It was “insurance.” But if this were a pragmatic arrangement, why had he sacrificed himself? It didn’t make sense. This death did not necessarily mean the failure of Daoud’s diplomacy overall. “Irreconcilables” were always expected, even if a majority opted to change sides. NATO and the Afghan government fervently hope that most Taliban will do deals rather than fight to the death. “Victory” in Afghanistan may depend on it.
A few days later, we took a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter with Daoud to a remote part of a neighboring province. At a dusty police and army post, there was a little ceremony for insurgents who were “reintegrating.” They lined up to be presented with gifts of chapans, traditional Afghan coats made of thick, warm material with a bright green and red stripe. The local police chief threw the coats over the insurgents’ shoulders and shook hands. They looked embarrassed to be there. The atmosphere was muted. “We are just simple farmers,” said one. “We had to join the Taliban. They were in our village. We had no choice.”
But as we left, one of the Taliban issued a quiet threat to our interpreter: “If we see you again, we’ll cut your throat,” he said, under his breath. (They were also well armed for farmers: Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. The police had taken the precaution of having the firing pins removed from the weapons for the ceremony.) Daoud told me that “within 100 days” the defecting Taliban could expect to be offered jobs in the local police. A few weeks ago, they had been manning Taliban checkpoints on the main road through the district. Soon they would be doing the same thing for the police. This was what reintegration meant in practice.
NATO commanders are pleased with the way the offensive is going in the north. Daoud seems to be one of their favorite Afghan officers. He gets things done. In provinces like Baghlan, village after village is falling to the government. It looks as if the Taliban are being routed — certainly that is what Western officials would like to think. But how solid are these gains? Will they stand up to a Taliban summer offensive? If villagers, and some Taliban themselves, can change sides so easily, they can change back again. The hard-line, ideological Taliban returning from Pakistan with the warm weather will try to turn the momentum of the conflict back again.
The battle for Afghanistan is a battle for public opinion, and most Afghans just want to be on the winning side. With the push for “transition” to Afghan security control, the country’s forces are on the offensive, eager to show NATO they can take territory from the insurgents. For ordinary people, then, “transition” may mean that one group of gunmen is replaced by another, Taliban exchanged for arbakis. And reintegration may mean it is the same group of gunmen all along.
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